WebExtra: Pros, cons of CPS truancy initiative

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The Chicago Public Schools’ two-year-old truancy initiative has yet to make an impact on high school absences.

Aimed at improving communication with parents, the initiative gave schools a standard set of procedures for handling unexcused student absences. “So no longer can parents say, ‘I didn’t know my child wasn’t in school,'” explains Janette Wilson, the district’s director of attendance and truancy.

But schools still face considerable obstacles in getting teen truants back on track, she acknowledges. Here is a rundown of the steps schools should take and a sample of reaction from school staff.

1st Absence An automated phone call is made to students’ homes.

Schools find the system helpful, but many also require teachers or attendance office staff to call. For one, parents respond better to a personal message, schools have found, and recorded messages are more likely to be intercepted by students. “Who answers the phone at home? The teenager,” remarks Sheryl Rivers, assistant principal at Amundson High.

Some students say they even submit wrong numbers, such as their own cell phone numbers, to the school. “The funny thing is when they call in their own absence pretending to be mom,” says an attendance clerk at Von Steuben High.

2nd Absence Same as above
+ Classroom teachers call homes to inquire about students’ absence.

In high-poverty neighborhoods, phone numbers frequently change or get disconnected. Keeping them updated requires a continual, coordinated effort that not all schools are willing to make. Gage Park High’s attendance office circulates forms for updating parent contact information to every teacher, counselor and disciplinarian. When Farragut High can’t reach parents, it sends parent volunteers to visit their homes.

3rd Absence Same as above
+ The attendance office calls home to inquire about students’ absences.
+ School staff make home visits.

Schools have to dip into discretionary dollars to pay for staff to make home visits, and many say they can’t afford it. Some rely on parent or community volunteers, and others do without that service. Some schools say volunteers won’t go because they fear for their safety.

Central office has no staff assigned to make home visits, but area attendance staff do them occasionally, says Rickey Dorsey, CPS attendance and truancy coordinator.

Many in CPS still mourn the loss of the district’s 150 truant officers, who were cut in 1992 to close a budget gap. “Many were retired police officers. They knew the neighborhood and knew what was going on and felt comfortable going where they were going,” says Principal Frank Candioto of Foreman High.

5th Absence Same as above
+ A letter is mailed to parents.
+ Counselors call homes and schedule parent conferences.
+ Students and parents must sign contracts to improve attendance.
+ Referrals are made to social service and/or governmental agencies.

Mailing home an “official-looking” letter jolts some parents into action where repeated phone calls did not,” says Candioto. Systemwide procedures laid out in the truancy initiative also give schools more leverage in dealing with resistant parents, he adds. Now he can tell parents: “The Board of Education has set standards. You’re not meeting the standards. Here are the consequences if you don’t.”

10th Absence Same as above
+ A letter is mailed to parents via certified mail.
+ A truancy intervention Case Plan is completed to remediate truancy and improve attendance.
18th Absence Principal initiates action to proceed with Truancy Adjudication, where a hearing officer may require parents to participate in counseling, parenting classes or community service.

Schools often find the adjudication process time-consuming and ineffective. (See related story) “Sometimes the parents don’t show up,” says Gage Park Principal Wilfredo Ortiz. “If they’re not coming to school, what makes the people think that they’re going to go to an adjudication hearing?”